A visit to Sringeri

After the triumphs of Buddhism in India, the ancient doctrine of the Upanishads was revived and re-interpreted by the great philosopher-yogi Shankara; he achieved a religious, intellectual and mystical re-conquest of India from a degenerate Buddhism, whose former spirit had already gone East and North, where it was to create its own wonders.

Shankara’s presentation is calm and appeals direct to the higher Self in each man; he did not propagandise by threats or attempting to bring force to bear on body or mind. He established ten orders of wandering teaching monks, and established four main temples, one at each corner of the diamond-shaped sub-continent of India. Two are on the coast (near Puri on the east coast, and at Dwaraka on the west), and two in the mountains-Jyoti temple in the Himalayas, and the Sarada temple at Sringeri in Mysore plateau (not quite at the tip of India, but rather to the south-west).

The Sringeri math (monastic centre) has been the most distinguished for philosophic, religious and yogic eminence of its head, called Shankara after the founder. The first successor was Sureshvara, author of many famous works on Vedanta including Naishkarmyasiddhi, which has been translated for the first time into English by Shanti Sadan.

The tenth Shankara had two great disciples, Bharatitirtha and Vidyaranya, brothers who successively became Shankaras in the thirteenth century. Vidyaranya was spiritual adviser to two leaders of a successful revolt against Muslim domination, and the rulers of the new Vijayanagar attributed their success
to their guru. We know that one of them practised Advaita (non-dual) meditation under Vidyaranya, as it is mentioned in the grant of lands to Sringeri. For two hundred and fifty years the very close relation continued, and the kings built hundreds of temples, most of which looked to Sringeri for spiritual guidance (and often material guidance as well). The period is well documented, and it appears that prosperity did not corrupt the spiritual mandate of the founder; even after the collapse of the empire the Sringeri gurus were widely respected by warring rulers both Hindu and Muslim (and even it seems on one occasion by the Thug professional murderers).

Mysore was put under control of British Commissioners in 1831. Later elaborate investigations, both public and secret, were made into the actual state of things at Sringeri. The British Commissioner reported: “The Sringeri Guru is the acknowledged spiritual director not only of the great proportion of the Hindus of southern India, but also of those leading Mahratta houses such as Holkar.. . . It may be said that his influence is far greater than that of any spiritual guide in India, and I presume it is for this reason that he is regarded with such unlimited respect…. He is a venerable old man of 72, who has been a great traveller and has a considerable reputation for learning. He is deservedly respected, being very unassuming in manner and having a well-established character for benevolence and wisdom.”

This was the thirty-second Shankara who died after appointing as his successsor a young man whom he had prepared both by yogic training and by taking him with him during his last tours round India. The successor spent his first six years as Shankara mainly in seclusion in worship and yogic practices. Then he began touring. He was a well-known scholar and also a mystic-he often said that India must be prepared for a “new descent of the spirit of Shankara”. He took an active part in sweeping away degenerate forms of worship which had been practised in some Tantric temples.
This Shankara had an average tenure, from 1879 to 1912. Looking at the records we find that the Shankaras were mostly vigorous men who held the position for well over thirty years on average; there were no usurpations or puppets appointed by some powerful ruler. In general the Shankara trained up a successor who took over from him when he died.

The thirty-fourth Shankara lived mainly in retirement. However he had selected his successor, the present Shankara,
early; so that the Shankara’s administrative duties were already substantially in the hands of the successor for a number of years before he formally succeeded to the position. He is a very active and energetic man who spends a great deal of time touring, and I was lucky to have the chance to meet him.

The ascent to Sringeri from Mangalore on the coast takes about two hours, travelling by a winding road up the mountains. The country here in South India is fertile and in October there was green everywhere. When the high plateau is reached it is somehow a surprise to see a river running across it: this is the Tunga river, and in a bend of it are the ancient temples of Sringeri. The temple to Sarada, the goddess of wisdom, is said to have been founded by Shankara himself, and the present building dates from about the thirteenth century. It is in Dravidian (south Indian) style, with highly ornamented stone carvings. It is perhaps two hundred feet long and mostly one storey, though at one end it rises to a peak of about 40 feet. One of the objects of devotion of the Shankaras has traditionally been Narsingha, an incarnation of the Lord as a man with a lion’s head, who burst out of a pillar to protect his devotee Prahlad. In the stone lion head bursting as it were from the pillars, there is a large round stone held in the mouth behind the great teeth; I did not learn the symbolic meaning of this, but it must have been carved together with the head from the original stone, as it is too large to have been inserted afterwards.

There was a big festival at the Temple at the time I was there, and I was allowed to attend the ceremony in the temple. The Shankaracharya in magnificent robes with a high domed hat entered, preceded by gongs and trumpets. I could not see what he did at the altar, but it did not take long and he returned and went out in procession in the same way. Immediately afterwards one of the priests performed the Arti (light) ceremony before the little image of Sarada, which is about two foot high, in a sitting posture. He holds a large bell in the left hand which he rings vigorously and continuously while the little light in his right hand is circled several times in front of the image, following roughly its outline. Afterwards he brings the light round the temple and all the worshippers “take” it-the method is to stretch out the right hand till the finger-tips are just above the flame, and then bring them back to touch the forehead. I was offered this light and “took” it in the way as shown by Dr Shastri at Shanti Sadan, in which both hands go out till the finger-tips meet just beyond the light and then the finger tips
are drawn still touching over the head, three times. This attracted no comment and it is presumably the method in vogue in Northern India.

The festival celebrations begin at 4.30 a.m., and continue till late at night. The sacred car with the image of Sarada (= Saraswati, goddess of wisdom) is taken round the whole of the little town, to visit the sick who are unable to come to the temple. A devotee dressed as Krishna also wanders round the temple and streets singing devotional songs with a lute.

I was told that the Shankara would see me at his audience (darshana) but only for about five minutes, as there were many to see from all over India. After the magnificence of theprevious day, I had unconsciously expected something elaborate, but when I was admitted it was into a long bare room, with the Shankara in a cheap red cotton robe sitting on the floor in one corner.

He does not speak English, though he evidently understood it, for he sometimes began to reply without waiting for a translation. He was born a year after Dr Shastri had left India, but he knew his name and remarked, “Yes, Hari Prasad Shastri. He was a Punjabi’; he went abroad to teach Vedanta in foreign countries.”

I had sent him beforehand a copy of Dr Shastri’s three volume translation of the Ramayana, and I had one other thing to show him. Dr Shastri had once mentioned that there was in the British Museum a commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras by a Mahatma named Balarama Udasin, for whom he had the highest regard. I had obtained a photostat of part of this, and showed it to the Shankara, who did not know of it and displayed keen interest. He said that Balarama Udasin had been a Sikh by birth but had become a famous Advaita Mahatma, and had written a commentary on the Sankhya Karikas. As he was so interested in the book I left it with him.

He asked me for any questions on Vedanta but the interpreting broke down at this point. He interrupted their translations of his replies with “No! No!” By the time a scholar was found whom he considered competent I had already been there an hour, and knowing the crowd that was waiting I forbore to ask any more.

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